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Federal Eye
Posted at 06:09 PM ET, 04/14/2011

Top USDA official, leaving to work for Rahm Emanuel, accused of discrimination

Correction: This post about equal-employment-opportunity complaints against senior Agriculture Department officials including Communications Director Chris Mather, who is leaving the department to serve as spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, incorrectly included Deputy Director of Operations Justin DeJong among those named in nine complaints. DeJong was not a subject of any of those complaints, but he was mentioned by some of the workers who filed them in a letter sent to members of Congress expressing concerns about USDA personnel practices. As the post indicated, Mather said she was also speaking for Black and DeJong in a statement she issued in response to the allegations. The blog post also said that “other top officials” were named in the complaints along with Mather and Deputy Communications Director David Black. In fact, the complaints name only Mather, Black and one other official, Web Services Director Amanda Eamich.

The Agriculture Department’s outgoing communications director — leaving Friday to serve as Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s spokeswoman — and her top aides have faced at least nine federal personnel complaints, according to documents and interviews with current and former USDA employees. The allegations include age and gender discrimination and the promotion of employees supportive of the Democratic Party.

Chris Mather, a former spokeswoman for Jill Biden during the 2008 Obama-Biden presidential campaign, has been USDA’s communications director since 2009. She has worked for legal and women’s groups in Chicago and announced April 5 that she is returning to the city to work for Emanuel, who takes office in mid-May.

Mather, Deputy Communications Director David Black, Deputy Director of Operations Justin DeJong and other top officials in the department’s communications office faced at least nine formal equal employment opportunity complaints filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. The workers said they raised the allegations “because of a hostile work environment, retaliation and/or prohibited personnel practice,” according to a letter sent to lawmakers in January.

“This is very serious and never in our entire careers have we encountered such egregious, mean and poor management,” the letter said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said late Thursday that two of the complaints have been dismissed, two were settled and five remain under investigation.

“If there’s a determination of wrongdoing we’ll deal with it, as we should,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Mather’s management style “is equated more to a dictatorship than that of a relationship built upon mutual trust and respect between employees and their managers,” the current and former employees wrote in their letter.

Marci Hilt, who worked in the agency’s public affairs office for 43 years, said she signed the letter with seven former colleagues because Mather is “the most unprofessional political appointee I’d ever worked with.”

“She would go up and down people like a buzzsaw” and yell at them in daily staff meetings, Hilt, now retired, said in an interview Thursday. Hilt also said that Mather “wanted the political appointees talking to reporters” instead of having career staffers, who knew the subject matter, talking to the reporters they knew who cover USDA.

The letter’s signatories said they have more than 150 years of combined federal service. Six current employees also agreed with the criticisms listed in the letter but declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. Three of the employees said they had tried to address the concerns with USDA officials. All of them said Mather’s impending departure isn’t expected to improve morale.

According to the letter, employees selected for promotion in the past two years “are all under 30 years old and/or come with backgrounds or beliefs that support the policies of the Democratic Party.”

The letter said most female communication office staff members haven’t been offered opportunities for promotion in the past two years and that those now holding senior positions in the office “were either handpicked” by Mather and Black or already in the job before they arrived.

Mather, Black and others “pressured several [Office of Communications] staff to retire who are over 55 years old through two buyouts despite these employees saying that they were not ready to retire,” according to the letter. Some employees, including Hilt, accepted the offer, and “it was encouraged strongly that the others retire also.”

Mather and other political officials also forced career employees to “check in” and “check out” each day, the letter said, and based performance reviews in part on whether they complied with the order. Two employees with more than 30 years of service were reassigned by Mather without notice, according to the letter. Senior political officials also unevenly enforced the department’s teleworking policy and denied some employees the opportunity to work from home, instead suggesting they take a day off.

A copy of the letter was sent to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) because many of the workers live in Maryland. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), agriculture secretary during George W. Bush’s administration, also received the letter. Mikulski’s and Johanns’s offices declined to comment, citing federal law prohibiting discussion of personnel matters. The workers said they contacted Johanns’s office because his chief of staff previously served as their boss.

In a statement, Mather disputed “a litany of factual errors included in the allegations” and said she made changes to her office to improve operations and morale.

“Not everyone was supportive of the increased accountability, collaborative approach and strategic planning processes we put in place, but it has resulted in a more efficient, responsive organization that delivers results for both the media and the American public,” Mather said in an e-mail.

In her e-mail, Mather said she “inherited inefficiencies and low staff morale and we made changes to address this and improve operations of the office. The process led to a reorganization, which greatly enhanced effectiveness, helped identify over $800,000 in wasteful spending, created a strategic and operational plan for the first time in a decade, and established accountability which essentially did not exist when I got here.”

Vilsack said Mather’s new job in Chicago had nothing to do with the complaints, adding, “I think it’s a great opportunity for her and a great opportunity for Rahm.”

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Emanuel, declined to comment.

Friction and disagreements between senior political appointees and career federal workers is common, especially during changes in administrations.

Federal employees who allege abuse of federal civil service laws or whistleblower reprisals may file complaints with the OSC, which reviews the cases and can refer them to the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Justice Department for further investigation. An OSC spokesman said his office doesn’t comment on specific allegations or cases.

Hilt said she and the others went public with their allegations because they “care deeply about USDA and its reputation.”

One of the unidentified employees said she and other colleagues are speaking out because “in order to effect change, we just can’t sit back and keep taking this.”

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By  |  06:09 PM ET, 04/14/2011

Categories:  Administration, Workplace Issues

 
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